Melanie McDonagh: Jolly good show, chaps. Anyone for boxing?

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The Independent Online

The meek shall inherit the earth, but it is especially gratifying when they shine in the Olympics. The demeanour of the British gold medallists led by Matthew Pinsent when they collected their laurels for winning the coxless four rowing competition was delightfully modest. Steve Williams told us how brilliant Matthew Pinsent was and shyly admitted that the result had been pretty close. Matthew himself seemed too overcome with emotion to say anything.

The meek shall inherit the earth, but it is especially gratifying when they shine in the Olympics. The demeanour of the British gold medallists led by Matthew Pinsent when they collected their laurels for winning the coxless four rowing competition was delightfully modest. Steve Williams told us how brilliant Matthew Pinsent was and shyly admitted that the result had been pretty close. Matthew himself seemed too overcome with emotion to say anything.

Maybe this is not surprising, since many of the sports at which the Brits excel are those about which few of us have ever heard. We've all seen the Boat Race, so think we know about rowing. But the coxless pairs' take on it is a refinement that was new to me. Ditto the double sculls, in which Elise Laverick and Sarah Winckless won bronze medals. Who knew about yngling apart from Scrabble players? Whitewater kayaking, where Campbell Walsh won a silver medal, is, as an Olympic sport, on a par with synchronised diving in terms of public recognition.

The other thing about the medal-winning sports is that so many of them seem to have emerged from the minor public schools - well, Matthew Pinsent is an Old Etonian, but let it pass - and major universities of England. Consider cycling, rowing, three-day eventing, dressage, shooting, canoeing, sailing - not to talk of hockey and archery. If you except Paula Radcliffe, this roll-call of British sporting achievement seems to have everything to do with the enthusiasms of the middle classes.

It's a world with which John Betjeman and Joan Hunter Dunn would have been familiar. Which isn't in the least to underplay the skill and persistence of the contenders. Without them, Britain's performance at Sydney would have been far less impressive - the medals then, as now in Athens, were in rowing, cycling, shooting, eventing et al. On the other side, Amir Khan's triumphs will probably reinforce boxing's reputation as a route for poor and black youth out of obscurity.

Sport, in England, isn't quite the classless, raceless realm we might like, and the Olympics show it. There's no getting away from the reality that the ethos of Chris Hoy and Matthew Pinsent seem from another world than that of Becks, Sven, Rio and Footballers' Wives. Of course, there's everything to be said for diversity. It would be nice, for a change, though, to see a black British medallist in the dressage finals. Or, indeed, an Old Etonian boxer.

Peter Pan flies again

The Great Ormond Street Hospital only has a few more years to reap the useful millions from its hold on the copyright of J M Barrie's Peter Pan, so it can't be blamed entirely for its decision to hold a competition to decide on an author to write the official sequel. Nonetheless the prospect gives me the creeps. It's not just that there have been hardly any sequels written of classic stories by people other than the original author which have been anything but embarrassing failures.

Those who are familiar with the story, not from the book but from the Walt Disney take on it - most children nowadays, I imagine - simply aren't conscious of how very much of its time it was. It's not that the book - which was written in 1911, years after the play - is sentimental. Barrie was an exceptionally shrewd author and passages like his account of Tinkerbell's sexually charged hatred of Wendy, and indeed, her hopeful efforts to kill her, are patently written with adults as well as child readers in mind.

But there are aspects of the story that are extraordinarily difficult to replicate unselfconsciously nowadays. One of them is the character of Wendy. She's a very girlish little girl whose greatest aspiration is to be the mother of a family, just like her own mother. So she is in her element when she takes charge of the Lost Boys: "When she sat down to a basketful of their stockings, every heel with a hole in it, she would fling up her arms and exclaim, 'Oh dear, I am sure I sometimes think spinsters are to be envied.' Her face beamed when she exclaimed this."

It's impossible to follow that, a hundred years on. There's no girl that I can think of in contemporary fiction who is so maternal and whose highest aspiration is to play "mother" to Peter Pan's "father". Wendy isn't an unrealistic character. But I bet you anything that no author now can resist trying to turn her into an action heroine and proto-feminist.

Of course, the book doesn't really need a sequel. Versions of the little boy who won't grow up are all around us in any number of men I can think of.

But there's another aspect to Peter Pan which is very much of our time. Peter, if you remember, is convinced by his own rhetoric - "To him, make believe and true were exactly the same." And in that sense, much of our politics is pure Peter Pantheism. Political spin is all about pretending that if ministers say that something is true, why then it becomes true. If they say that the world is a safer place after the invasion of Iraq, they believe it and expect us to believe it. If they tell us that A levels are worth just as much now as they ever were, why that becomes true as well.

By comparison with these present-day Peter Pans, being asked to believe that the first time a baby laughed, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and that they all turned into fairies doesn't seem such a challenge.

Talking of A-levels, there is one aspect of the running debate about whether the exams have been dumbed down that never seems to be given sufficient weight. It's the fact that there are at least two examination boards, run on commercial lines, which set and mark A-level papers in most subjects. There are a couple of worrying implications from this. One is that since the competing boards are pursuing the same group of schools and candidates, there is no incentive for one of them to be more rigorous in its curriculum or stricter in its marking than the rest.

Where's the market in being the board that fails more candidates than the com- petition? The other is that there is simply no way that a potential employer has a clue whether one A-level is as rigorous as the next in terms of syllabus or standards.

There aren't many areas where a monopoly (state or private) is a good thing, but I'd say that examining is one of them.

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